The Pick - Optical revelations

December 2, 2010

Bridget Riley: Paintings and Related Work

National Gallery, London, until 22 May 2011

Bridget Riley has long been associated with the National Gallery. She copied one of its holdings, a portrait by Jan van Eyck, as part of the process of applying to Goldsmiths' College in 1949, and served as a trustee of the Gallery from 1981 to 1988. In 1989, she curated an exhibition in a series called The Artist's Eye, which brought together one of her own paintings with seven of her favourite works from the National Gallery collection, by Titian, Veronese, El Greco, Poussin, Rubens and Cézanne. It was accompanied by a video commentary, offering a strikingly articulate and enthusiastic personal response to the paintings, which plays on a loop as part of the current exhibition.

What is notable, however, is that Riley hardly mentions the subject matter of the pictures - the miracles, mythological love scenes or crowds of naked bathers - and focuses instead on how the shapes and colours intertwine, echo each other and structure the space. "Painting has been an abstract art," she once wrote, "long before Abstract art became a style and a theory."

For her new show, in the Gallery's Sunley Room, Riley has again brought together her own work, old and new, with paintings from elsewhere in the National Gallery. Raphael's portrait of Saint Catherine of Alexandria depicts her in the serpentinata pose popular with exotic dancers, with head, shoulders and hips rotated at different angles. Mantegna's Introduction of the Cult of Cybele at Rome offers a monochrome palette imitative of a stone relief. Seurat's three sketches of riverside scenes formed studies for his celebrated oil painting of Bathers at Asnieres.

The earliest of Riley's works are examples of what others called Op Art in the 1960s, which led to lawsuits when the style was adopted by the fashion industry. The most recent are two wall paintings, one a composition of more than 120 interlocking circles now in its seventh iteration. Others are solely made of stripes or planes of up to five bold colours meticulously painted by her assistants.

The effect of the contrast works both ways. Next to Riley's abstractions, we start to look at the figurative paintings less for what they depict and more for what she calls their "technique, harmonies and contrasts". But her work also takes on new dimensions. The stylised waves rippling in both directions in Arrest 3 recall the light effects on Seurat's river. The S-shaped greens and blues in Arcadia 1 (Wall Painting 1) begin to resemble a procession of serpentine figures swaying in the wind.

Now in her 80th year, Riley has devoted a lifetime to a particular philosophy of painting and continues to hope that "people will wonder what to look at and so will experience looking. Artists teach you how to look.

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